In African Prisons Support Comes From the Inside

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LONDON — There were few surprises when it came to the medals table at this year’s Olympics, although the host nation was particularly proud of its performance, and in hosting the Olympics in general. More was invested in hosting the games than the GDP of many of the countries participating.

However, if we compare medals won with GDP, a different picture emerges, and many of the world’s poorer countries performed unexpectedly well, including West Indian and African nations, despite their relative inability to invest in the training and development of athletes.

The world’s wealthiest countries, led by the United States, invest huge amounts on criminal justice and imprisoning their citizens. The prison budget in the United States in 2009 was $60 billion, Uganda’s GDP in 2009 was estimated at $41 billion. In 2006, California spent $216,000 per year per juvenile inmate. Although figures for many poorer countries are difficult to obtain, a recent report suggested that Uganda spends about $2 per inmate per year on health.

Many of the challenges facing prisons services spread across borders and continents. Overcrowding, staff training and development, rehabilitation and recidivism, health, education and access to justice are all difficult issues. However, it seems that few Western countries have got it right, considering rates of reoffending, despite the high investment in prisons. Perhaps they could look to some of their poorer neighbors for solutions to some of the greatest challenges relating to mass incarceration.

I have spent time working in or visiting perhaps 75 prisons in 14 different countries on three continents. One of the common features seems to be that prisons are places where inmates are forced to be inward looking. Responsibility for their families, to their employers or their communities, and for many aspects of their own lives, is removed from them, and they are left dependent on the prisons service to meet their needs.

I was struck by the fact that in many prisons in Uganda, inmates have stepped up to the plate and work with the prisons service to meet the needs of their fellow inmates. Prisoners at Luzira Upper Prison in Kampala can study from primary through to tertiary education, under the instruction of their fellow inmates. If a prisoner becomes sick it is often their fellow inmates who will help to take care of them when they are admitted to the prison clinic. Although no monetary value is accorded to these services at present, I believe they make a great contribution to inmates’ health and education outcomes. Allowing inmates to provide for each other helps to create an outlook of being part of a community, which prepares inmates for the family, working and community environment when they are released.

I have visited a number of prisons costing hundreds of millions of dollars. The walls are solid, the security equipment is high tech, but investment in education is often very minimal.

It strikes me, as a lawyer as well as a prison worker, than most of those who end up in prison did not have a good education. I believe that time in prison should be about gaining the skills and attitude needed to successfully reintegrate and lead a life free of crime upon release. A culture amongst prisons staff which promotes education, at all levels, for inmates as well as fellow warders, contributes to an environment of reformation rather than punishment.

Huge amounts of money aren’t needed to achieve this. Just look at Naivasha Maximum Security prison just outside Nairobi in Kenya. Of the 3,000 inmates at that prison more than 1,000 are involved in formal education. Most, if not all, of the books they use to study with were donated to the prison and the prison’s education budget is small, but an enabling environment has been created by prisons staff in which inmates’ academic success is viewed as a source of pride for staff who contribute to it individually and collectively.

The same could be said to be the case on death row at Luzira Upper, where about half of inmates are involved in some form of education, including studying for diplomas and degrees in law with the University of London by correspondence, some of their guards are students on the same programs.

This leads on to the importance of dynamic security. I see this as being about maintaining a safe and secure environment where inmates and staff as well as the community are protected, but using more sophisticated means rather than more gates, more walls and more guns.

I met a death row inmate in Texas, locked in a cell without a window behind two doors. He was allowed to exercise for one hour each day, in an internal corridor. Compare this with death row in Uganda, where around 300 condemned inmates are allowed out of their cells for about 8 hours each day. During this time they can mix freely, doing sports, attending religious activities or studying.

A few staff mingle amongst them, but the level of tension is low, violence is extremely rare, and the impression is that this is an environment where prisoners and prisons staff live and work together, despite the sobering presence of the gallows in its midst.

It perhaps comes as no surprise that Uganda’s first Olympic medal winner for 40 years, Stephen Kiprotich, who won the Olympic Marathon last weekend, works for Uganda Prisons Service.

Although the resources the prisons service can allocate to sport are perhaps modest compared to many countries, a mindset of anything being possible and not allowing lack of resources to equal a lack of ambition might be seen as a common theme.

Alexander McLean is founder and director general of the African Prisons Project

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